Democrats and Vouchers: A Love Story

For the inside story on why the federal government created a voucher system for higher education and the fight to change that policy, read this new article in the Washington Monthly 2015 College Rankings

Imagine a world in which the federal government operated a free-market mecca for education, pumping $168 billion a year to schools and families every year through a combination of vouchers and tax credits that gives students and families maximum ability to choose the best place for them to go to school, free from top down impositions from the government. Conservatives would rejoice and liberals would expend significant political energy trying to kill it.

The most ardent defenders of vouchers in higher ed are not conservatives, but liberals

That exact program—federal student aid—does exist, except the most ardent defenders are not conservatives but liberals, who expend significant amounts of political energy to increase the maximum voucher, also known as a Pell Grant, and increase tax credits to middle and upper income families. Hillary Clinton’s new higher education proposal is a case in point: while she argues for direct subsidies for public schools, she still favors Pell (a voucher), loans (a voucher you have to pay back), and tax credits.

Democrats watch in horror as states continue to disinvest, but have largely refused to acknowledge the federal government’s role in the process, though there are signs they are waking up. Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee are calling witnesses like F. King Alexander, the president of Louisiana State University I just profiled in Washington Monthly, who argues that giving money to any school with a name and a stamp of approval from their peers in the name of “access” has proven to be disastrous policy. Skyrocketing tuition, low graduation rates, and high levels of defaults in the federal student loan program should serve as a wake up call. It’s time for the Democrats to call the federal student aid system what it is, “a voucher”, and realign their policy goals to match their values and priorities.

Arguments against vouchers in K-12 also apply to the Pell Grant program

Democrats have long opposed school vouchers, arguing that they “send federal taxpayer dollars to private schools that are in no way accountable to the public,” as Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate HELP committee, said in a speech on the Senate floor last month. She went on to say that:

Some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle like to argue that vouchers create options for students and families.  That might be true for students from more affluent families.  But vouchers do not provide a real choice for the overwhelming majority of students. Vouchers might cover some, but usually not all, of the tuition at a private school.  In some cases, a voucher would make just a small dent in the full cost of a private school.

All of these arguments also apply to the Pell Grant program. Private colleges often charge tuition well above the cost of the grant, leaving students and their parents stuck with taking out loans, and the schools are not held accountable at all by the federal government. Yet Murray lists raising the maximum award for the Pell Grant as one of her major education accomplishments.

How can Democrats be so in favor of one and so against the other? Part of it is practical. Democrats want to help low-income students pay for college, and if that has to be through a voucher then so be it. But the sanctity of the Pell Grant seems to have blinded Democrats to their own critiques of vouchers.

So, what’s wrong with the current system? First, grants, tax credits, and loans all favor schools that charge high tuition. Schools that charge low tuition don’t reap the full reward. Second, there are no quality standards or accountability measures. Third, because colleges can charge high tuition, students can still be priced out or forced to take on high debt loads to attend schools of questionable quality. Fourth, the whole voucher system rests on the idea that students and families can make informed choices, but Congress has made it impossible to adequately compare schools on important outcome measures. Fifth, with so much federal voucher money floating around the system, states have a strong incentive to disinvest in their state public schools, and Democrats favor state investment in public universities.

Democrats should declare war on the higher ed voucher system

If the Democrats were to declare war on the voucher system, they could take all of that money and plow it into public schools, which is how federal funding in K-12 works. Whether or not public schools are better than privates is hard to say with current data, but Democrats would traditionally argue that it’s better to invest in those publics to make them great. For Democrats to save public higher education, it’s time to rethink their unwavering support of higher education vouchers.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Alexander Holt

Alexander Holt is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at New America.